Let me begin by saying that I don’t disagree with Marxist social critique of literature on ideological grounds. Although, a Marxist theorist would say that everything is ideological. Still, I can disagree with the beliefs of a system and not condemn them as beliefs. I feel the same way about Christianity: I disagree with some of the beliefs propounded by churches over the centuries, but I certainly don’t wish to suggest that the whole system of beliefs and faith is “bankrupt” as the Marxists like to say in one of their colorful economic metaphors. No doubt there is much I don’t understand, for I am always aware of my own areas of ignorance.
That said, my principal objection to social critics is that they so often sound like they are enforcing some political correctness on literature. It is all well and good to critique specific works of art as being marred by their classist or racist or mysogynist or imperialist advocacy. Literature that is written as propaganda is certainly lacking as literature (though it might be effective as propaganda). But if an author writes a book or an artist creates a work of art that merely reflects his own point of view as a member of a class, I question whether that is quite the same thing as, for example racisim or sexism. For example, Jane Austen writes about the English gentry. Servants are seldom mentioned and so far as I recall, never developed as three-dimensional characters. Is Jane Austen to be scolded and her work degraded because she neglects the working classes? Ladies will take baskets to the poor. Gentlemen will try to do things to help their tennants. But they still do live in their giant country houses, their family homes. Is the author to be condemned for the life of her characters? Surely not. Such criticism is not literary criticism. It is social criticism that treats literature as nothing but a cultural artifact of a particular time, and as such if it demonstrates the blinkered life of the gentry, then it is bad to read.
Take Anthony Trollope. He was a very marginal member of the middle class. His father owned land but lost it and the family fortune was lost in crazy schemes to start a business in America that was wholly unrealistic. Trollope’s mother saved the family from debtor’s prison by writing travel books. She became a prolific writer and successfully got her family out of England before the authorities could imprison them for debt. Anthony Trollope himself was saved from destitution by a series of opportunities offered to him by freinds. He worked as a minor official in the post office. But when he started, it was pretty grim. One might think that Trollope writes about aristocrats and the privileged. He does. But he also frequently examines the ways that people from moneyed families can end up with nothing and despertately must turn to the only alternative open for them — marrying money.
That theme is one of Jane Austen’s recurrent themes too. Readers may like Austen because of the love stories, but there is a quiet bit of social commentary going on too. No strident marxism or condemnation of the ruling class, but rather, the precarious position of those in the gentry, especially women, who are left without money and must marry to find safety from destitution. A lady who considers herself a member of the gentry does not want to see her daughter have to become a governess in order to survive. Austen shows realistic lives with humor and sensitivity, and they are no less valuable stories for not being about the proletariat.
Dickens, George Elliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell are examples of writers who delve further into the gritty underworld of the working class, factories, and lack of human rights upon which the British gentry depended. I find this makes good literature too. I don’t say it is better literature, though. It seems untenable to make aesthetic judgments about art on the basis of whether or not it acknowledges the existence and plight of the poor and the working class. Maybe it is because I am an American from the middle class, the bourgeoisie, but I don’t see any good reason to make such an argument. Certainly a great deal of popular literature now as well as in the 19th century may be categorized as Romance. Not the erotic stories that now form the genre called “Romance” but the older, more general meaning of the word. A romance was originally a tale of knights and ladies, villains and quests, and unconsummated love (or not) written for the ruling class. The troubadors started it with their heroic and romantic songs and stories created to intertain nobes at court.
Such stories were (and are) entertaining to people who are not themselves nobles. The whole idea of nobility may be considered as a trope, a fantasy. At best it is a sort of ideal, as in chivalric romances where knights rescue damsels rather than raping them. It is entertainment. Well, as more and more people became literate, such stories began to e written down and after the advent of the printing press, they were mass-produced as books. When did romances fall in the estimation of readers or literary critics? By some, they were considered too silly. Fantasy itself was condemned as putting a lot of crazy ideas into the head of (especially) young women. Men who read romances might encur some social critique from their peers, as wasting their time. In the 18th century, when reading books really became the thing, people (men at any rate) were being schooled to think that reasons and practical knowledge was what men should think about.
Reading romances might be all right for light entertainment, but they weren’t expected to make you think about the plight of the workers. That was what tracts were for. As the novel evolved as a distinct art form writers increasingly wanted to represent real life and as they themselves were often in that nebulous rift between classes, they were well positioned to bring the evils of a class system to the minds of the middle and upper classes — the moneyed classes, as we might say. A writer like Trollope was no aristocrat, nor a clergyman, but he wrote about them. He wrote about the nouveaux riches and the speculators too. He wrote about the real people he knew and put them into situations that were not at all fantastic, but nevertheless entertaining.
The Marxist critique thinks it is bad for people to read about themselves. White bourgeois people reading books with white bourgeois characters, or full of stereotypes of other ethnic groups or workers are considered to simply perpetuate evil ideas. The steampunk tendency to make characters people of rank — either noble rank or military rank — might look like the ruling class reading about itself. Or, worse, the bourgeoisie romanticizing the ruling elite to which they wish they could belong. Happy servants, or for that matter happy crewmen in ships, are romanticized — that is, they are not emulating the complexities of real life. They are presenting those under-classes as content to be in thier place, serving their masters. Jules Verne does this a lot in his books. The engineer or sceintist hero always has his man, his loyal valet. Impossible? Fantasy? Or merely a trope used in romance, the descendant of the knight and his squire?
Today we love stories like those in the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, or the film Gosford Park. We often like police procedural mysteries too that delve into the spaces between upper and lower classes of people. Marxism thinks in terms of classes. Reactionaries think in terms of classes too. But a truly liberal approach will find a writer who grew up privileged creating fictional worlds that do represent the real world, and not just the world of romance. The genres that grew out of the old chivalric romances are the gothic horror novel, fantasy, science fiction (mostly), and fantasy (mostly), and of course the erotic love story sort of romance we have today which may or may not cross class lines but does not care about realisic representation of the evils of the class system. The realistic novel has come to be considered “real” literature. Literary fantasy is judged by its lack of romanticism. Which makes most of the work that appeals to critics very dark and dreary and depressing. If you read novels to learn about the evils of society, all well and good. But if you read novels to escape from the evils of society and the constant impending doom we live under today; if you wish to escape from nihilism and a society that seems to far from our ideal of an egalitarian world of prosperity for all; then you will want romance.
Which brings me at last to steampunk as a genre. It is yet a small genre, but it is clearly and emphatically a genre of romance. It is the younger brother of gothic horror, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and love stories. The purpose it serves is escape from the mundane, more or less unpleasant realities of life. The professional critic might prefer novels that show the gritty real world and all its problems, but to ask steampunk to do that is to ask it to step outside the genre of romance. And it often does. Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine is seamy enough, even though most of its main characters are of the privileged classes. One might say the whole novel is about oppression and the technology of oppression. It is also about the emergence of a new ruling class — the technological elite.
The question steampunk has inherited from science fiction (of which it might be considered a type) is that question raised by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: what responsibility do scientists, physicians, and engineers have for the consequences of their inventions or creations? What moral responsibility does the scientific worldview demand, if any? One of the things steampunk stories do is to point out that this moral dilemma of secular science began in the 19th century with the advent of the steam engine.